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The Fraught and Expensive Cycle of Drug Testing

Probation and parole almost always require it, but some data show testing is contributing to technical violations of supervision — and revocations.

This is what it takes for William to stay out of jail:

Every day at 6 a.m., he must call a county hotline to learn if he is required to submit to random drug testing that day.

If his number is up, he has to make the hour-long drive from his home in Galveston, Texas, to neighboring Brazoria County, to report to the county’s contracted private testing center.

When he hangs up, he has to leave immediately, or the roundtrip and test will cause him to be late for his 9 a.m. shift as a cook for a catering company.

Each test costs me at least $40 and takes three hours of my day,” William said. (AV is not using his last name to protect his privacy.) The gas and the costs of the tests make me poor. I can’t save nothing.” He has to set aside $80 to $100 per week in case he is summoned to test multiple times — which happens frequently.

These drug tests — and remaining drug free — are a condition of his probation. If he missed a test, he would go to jail for three to six days. If he tested positive, he would go to back to jail for six to nine months. 

There are 3.9 million people under parole and probation supervision in the United States, and most are required to prove they are drug-free through negative drug tests. Probation is intended to be an alternative to a jail or prison sentence; parole is theoretically designed to help transition a person from incarceration back into the community. Both forms of supervision have the dual goals of reducing recidivism while supporting rehabilitation. Yet the limited research on testing in supervision suggests that testing is contributing to technical violations of supervision and to revocations, widening the net of the carceral system rather than supporting recovery, rehabilitation, or community safety. 

AV Fact Sheet: Drug Testing on Supervision

On the technical side, drug testing is probably the number one pathway back into incarceration.
Brian Lovins president of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), Principal for Justice System Partners

Many agencies test their clients randomly — even those with no history of substance use. Like William, an individual on supervision can expect to call in to a hotline or check an app each day to see if they have been called to test. Testing sites are often open only during normal business hours, which means that a client must take time off work on short notice, which their employer may not support, or find last-minute child care. Clients are typically charged a fee per test of between $15-$20. Together with the cost of transportation, clients can spend a significant portion of their monthly earnings on the costs associated with testing.

On the technical side, drug testing is probably the number one pathway back into incarceration,” said Brian Lovins, the president of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), Principal for Justice System Partners, and former assistant director of the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. Though data is limited, drug testing appears to be a source of a substantial portion of all technical violations of supervision conditions, he said.

The Reducing Revocations Challenge, a 10-site project led by the Institute of State and Local Governance, matched probation departments with researchers to better understand the drivers of revocations. The researchers found that drug testing was a notable contributor at many sites. 

In Denver, Colorado, 62% of people who had their probation revoked due to technical violations had missed at least one drug test. Picking up a new offense or failing a drug screen” are the main drivers of revocation in Monroe County, Indiana, according to one judge. In Pima County, Ariz., failed or skipped drug tests were the second most-violated probation condition between 2013 and 2019. While many probation and parole staff say that one positive drug test is rarely the sole cause of a revocation, more than one drug testing violation can tip a client over the edge alongside other issues. In addition, in interviews, supervision officers report that people who believe they may test positive may be more likely to fail to report or even abscond, which can lead to a revocation and can drive an individual deeper into the system.

Almost half of all prison admissions come from the supervision system, though research suggests that technical violations are poor proxies for new criminal acts.

Almost 1/2

Amount of all prison admissions that come from the supervision system

Changes in some counties may offer some ideas on a better path forward. The Adult Probation Department in Hennepin County, Minnesota modified its testing policy in 2020 – 2021 in response to the pandemic, a rise in overdose deaths, and data that revealed the department was over testing,” according to Director of Field Services Julie Rud. The new policies attempt to save money and promote efficiency by eliminating blanket testing and emphasize recovery support. 

According to Rud, the department now only requires drug testing for clients who have a substance issue linked to criminal behavior. If a client is already being tested as part of a treatment program, they cannot be tested by the department. The department also ended panel testing, which screens for a wide array of substances that may or may not have any relevance for a particular person, and is using resources more efficiently by testing only for drugs of concern to the client. 

Probation officers now emphasize encouragement for negative tests rather than punishment for positives, a practice known as contingency management. Since these reforms, Rud points to data showing the number of people being tested each week has dropped from 1,000 to 400. Violations due to drug testing have also decreased: In 2017, 41% of standard violation reports included a positive test; in 2021, 18% of violation reports did. Rud said the department says it has not seen compromised community safety as a result of these reforms.

We’re pushing for a fundamental shift in supervision policies from catching or enabling failure to facilitating and promoting success,” said Alexa Herzog, criminal justice manager at Arnold Ventures. Broad, mandated, and punitive drug testing seems to fall into that first bucket. We need to know more to find out whether testing in supervision can be used for successful outcomes, if it can be, and how to achieve that”

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